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by Dr. Jeffrey Lant.
Author’s program note. To consider the great seas and oceans of our habitat is to consider the very origin of our species and how, upon decease, the residue of each of us returns to the water from whence we came.
The truth is not ashes to ashes, not dust to dust, but drop to drop, oozing towards the watery place where life ends and life begins all over again; an unbreakable cycle of life, death, renewal, our place by no means secure and irrevocable.
Those who move upon these waters know this cycle, respect it, seek to understand and profit from it. But none of them seeks to control it, for that is the prerogative of God Himself alone whose countenance hovers over the waters, dictating fair passage or foul, for God moves in mysterious ways, as the fisher folk of Gloucester, Massachusetts know; theirs the home of the oldest fleet, port and harbor of the new land, coming long years before the Great Republic itself.
This story is their story and despite its deep sadness I am whilst grieving glad to write it… for this story is well worth the telling.
As soon as I became aware of this story insistent words filled my brain. They were the sharp words of Gordon Lightfoot’s 1976 classic “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” Once you hear it, the stark simplicity of its words and music arrest your full attention, as they will rise unbidden at every watery event of melancholy and loss. Lightfoot understood that the stories of greatest impact, the most powerful words, the ones that change your life and reside in your brain forever, are simple, short, thrust from his brain to yours where they reside, waiting for you to trip on the booby trap that sets them off in your mind all over again; each time to be reminded of the awe and terrible power of the unyielding water, the water that creates us, sustains us, and controls us, never to be released.
Lightfoot, poet, has this ability… and that is why listening to “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” is so haunting, painful, music you should listen to only when there is a sympathetic hand nearby touching yours, reminding you there is light and life and even the comforts of love poised for you. Then listen as Lightfoot weaves his tale of a great ship of 29 men, weighed down with too much iron ore and cargo, “fully loaded”; the ship, the men that have no chance at all, none whatsoever, when pitted against the capricious mastery “Of the big lake they called ‘Gitche Gumee’.
The ship, “the pride of the American side”, went down, all hands lost, never to be given up by dread Superior or seen again. They were now and forever entombed in the waters of eternity. And so the tune ends on a note that is at once bleak, somber, hopeless.
Go now to any search engine and see for yourself. But here’s the rub… the terrible, affecting, afflicting, distressing, dismal, depressing tale that Lightfoot tells is, with all its solemnity and woe, happier, I think, than what happened to the Foxy Lady II and her two-man crew.
For the grieving survivors of Edmund Fitzgerald’s dead could take what comfort they could from the fact their loved ones were immortalized by Lightfoot who thus gave them something of closure and peace. For those who knew the little Foxy Lady II and her crew it is very different. Their terrible sadness will abide, raw, chilling, tugging at hearts already broken and distressed. This is the greatest burden of all, for there is no comfort here.
Here’s what we know about the Foxy Lady II, its 25 year-old captain Wally “Chubby” Gray Jr. and his 50-year old mate, Wayne Young.
Foxy Lady II was a 45-foot scalloper homeported in Gloucester although Gray and Young were from Deer Isle, Maine.
For all that he was a young man, Gray had a lifetime of fishing experience. His father was a fisherman; he had started his son in the family business at age 3, his mother reported. He knew boats, fish, and the movements of dark sky and darker waters. He respected them and so he was chary, careful, prepared, professional.
He had a young child, just 3, affectionately called “Mini me”. The backyard, eyes-squinting pictures of father and son are jolting, one now dead, the other bereft of a father. “Chubby” playing with his son, hair a riot of disorder, his young son, blond and happy to be with the father he will not recall at all in the long, lonely years to come. This is but one of the sad stories here….
The newspapers report that “Chubby” had a “girlfriend.” However, in all the coverage there is no mention of a wife or the baby’s mother. Such facts, such omissions, suggest turmoil and domestic confusion… and of the pain we humans cause so casually to each other. “Chubby” Gray was young, looked younger but life had already marked him. Maybe that’s why he looks so thoughtful in the few photos which now constitute a fragile heirloom to his son, his legacy. We long to hear his thoughts… but he is powerless to tell us, now or ever.
And what of the mate, 50-year-old Wayne Young? His photograph reveals much, far too much. It shows a man who knew too much of the provocations, hindrances and obstacles which constitute “life” for so many.
Young’s skin looks tough and weathered, his leathery face the face of too many mornings after the nights before. But then we learn he was married, a devoted family man. Now we suppose his leathered complexion to be the tax he paid with his aging body to keep his wife Shirley and 3 children comfortable. And so we learn he is anything but the kind of man down- and-out, no place to go and no one to go with; not just a casual laborer, not a cent to his name, well-known to locals and ignored by the “summer people” and fast-in, fast-out visitors like me who smell Young’s sweat and stale perspiration and never ask (or want to know) his story, just get away from him as soon as possible.
Looks are deceiving, but the great waters take all, good and bad, sinner and saint, loving family men and artful philanderers. Still, it is telling that this man, gnarled by life’s unrelenting realities was taking orders from young “Chubby”, a man half his age. One can only hope they were friends and left this Earth together.
An ordinary boat, an ordinary crew, an ordinary day… then…
What does a day when men die look like? It looks like every other day. And so it was Saturday, December 14 when Foxy Lady II left port for a one-day trip to Stellwagen Banks, famous for its whales. An early evening return was expected… but there was no return at all. Because both men were experienced mariners, because the weather was “not too bad” but worsening. Because no one saw a single distress signal and because Chubby kept in touch with his girlfriend by cell phone until noon Saturday, no one was unduly worried… just yet. Just yet. But as the hours went by a sense developed that all was not well; that something was wrong…. Monday morning. Chubby’s always unnamed girlfriend at last notified the Coast Guard. Had she waited too long? She will spend the rest of her life wondering… but never knowing.
And so the Coast Guard, still not hearing anything, launched its search of more than 2,800 square miles of Massachusetts Bay, finding nothing.
But then there were finds, discoveries which only intensified speculation without solving anything. The boat’s survival capsule washed ashore in a marshy area of the Saugus River, north of Boston. No signs of life. Then fishing gear which may or may not have been theirs washed ashore near Nantasket Beach in Hull.
While the Coast Guard worked to turn clues into facts, the fisher communities of Gloucester and Deer Isle did what their stalwart, God-fearing ancestors did. They bowed their heads and confronted the stern realities of their chosen way of life. And so as hope waned the communities pulled together to help each other through the growing prospect of death… and not just death…but death without the finality of bodies. “Habeas corpus,” the great waters said. And the great waters, adamant, tenacious, were determined to keep them. Through it all the Spirit of God still moved upon the face of the waters, inscrutable, baffling, our past and our future.
Historians of the Gloucester area estimate than in the last 350 years since its foundation in 1623 over 10,000 fishermen and mariners have gone down to the sea in ships… and never returned. The names of just 5000 are either painted on a huge mural on the main staircase at City Hall or listed on a new memorial cenotaph on Stacy Boulevard. The list never stops growing…
“They might have split up or they might have capsized; May have broke deep and took water. And all that remains is the faces and the names Of the wives and the sons and the daughters.”